Electric stun guns are sold both for self-defense and law enforcement purposes. Private citizens may carry the devices for personal protection. Meanwhile, police utilize them as a means to incapacitate violent individuals without using lethal force. The device is commonly known as a taser. This is because many popular models were manufactured and sold by TASER International (now Axon). However, the legal issues in these cases and the experts required to opine remain similar regardless of which manufacturer produced the device.
Tasers and Unlawful Force
Most civil claims regarding tasers fall into one of two categories. The first is claims against public entities like police departments, cities, and counties. These claims often allege that the use of a taser during a police encounter constituted excessive force.
One example is a 2017 traffic stop in Glendale, Arizona. Here, police used a taser on a front seat vehicle passenger after the passenger refused to show identification. The passenger then allegedly “continued to argue, yell, and physically resist” as police attempted to remove them from the vehicle. During the traffic stop, police deployed tasers a total of 11 times. At least one instance may have involved contact with the passenger’s exposed genitals. The passenger later filed a lawsuit against the city of Glendale and its police department. The lawsuit claimed that the taser was an example of “unlawful, unnecessary, unreasonable, and excessive force.” This was purportedly in violation of the plaintiff’s civil rights.
Cases like these often focus on whether law enforcement officers behaved appropriately. A case may also question a city or county’s training protocols and supervision for taser-holding police officers. Finally, some cases examine how the tasers themselves are inspected, stored, or operated.
Taser Defect Claims
The second type of case typically involves claims that the taser itself is defective. These claims may accompany an unlawful force claim, or they may be made separately. Here, key issues include whether the device’s manufacture or design made it unreasonably dangerous for its intended use. Tasers function by conducting an electrical charge. As such, these cases may also explore whether the warnings that accompany the device are sufficient to alert users as to the risks they pose.
Taser Injury or Wrongful Death Claims
A taser works by delivering an electrical current that disrupts voluntary muscle control, resulting in temporary incapacitation. The recipient of the shock may experience localized pain or strong muscle contractions. This will depend on which muscles the device contacts.
Tasers, in general, are considered nonlethal. However, under certain circumstances, they can pose serious risks. For some individuals, exposure to a taser can cause cardiac arrhythmia that can progress to cardiac arrest. The presence of certain other conditions, like an underlying heart condition, use of certain drugs, or exposure to force or violence prior to the shock may increase the chances of a taser triggering cardiac arrest. The physiological effects of tasers on a plaintiff’s body may also be an issue in both types of taser cases.
Experts Commonly Used in Taser Cases
The types of experts demanded in a particular taser case will depend on the facts of the case and the legal theory applied. Experts who commonly appear in taser cases include medical experts, engineers, and designers. Further, experts on police department or administrative protocols regarding the training, storage, and use of tasers will also be imperative.
For example, in Heston v. TASER International, Inc. (2011), the plaintiffs sought damages for wrongful death. They argued that taser exposure had caused cardiac arrest in their 40-year-old son. At trial, they introduced evidence from two expert witnesses. The first was a cardiologist with experience in cardiac electrophysiology. The second was a medical examiner with extensive history performing autopsies.
Although the Ninth Circuit later vacated the damages awards to the plaintiffs, it affirmed that the district court did not abuse its discretion in admitting testimony from the two experts. It stated, “both witnesses were sufficiently qualified by ‘knowledge, skill, experience, training, or education to testify regarding the effects of the M26 TASER device on Heston’s body and the ultimate causes of his death.”
The Ninth Circuit also found that the studies the experts relied upon “were sufficiently analogous to this case to support the expert witness’s theories of causation.” This was because the studies focused on the relationship between taser use and blood acid levels. They also examined aggravating factors that were present in Heston’s situation.
Focus on Specific Experience
Heston v. TASER International, Inc. suggests that attorneys seeking expert witnesses in taser-related cases must focus their efforts. This should center on finding professionals with specific experience and knowledge regarding either the device itself or the effects of electrical charges. Particularly critical is the device’s impact on the human body. For cases in which taser storage or maintenance is at issue, experts with knowledge about handling electrical and other non-lethal defense devices may be helpful as well.